Illegal or Undocumented?

Can a person be illegal?  According to immigrant rights activists, no.  Only their activities can be called legal or illegal.

And last year, the Associated Press (followed later by other U.S. news organizations) AGREED with those people and decided to change how they refer to people who enter a country without documentation.

Just the other day, my friend Corin and I were having a conversation on this topic.  Like most of us, she wanted to show sensitivity to the situation of others but said it’s hard to know what to say.  From that, I developed a simple guideline for your future conversations.

The primary thing to understand is people and actions are separate.

Therefore, a PERSON

  • is undocumented
  • is without papers
  • overstayed his/her visa
  • doesn’t have official status

On the other hand, a PERSON’S STATUS or ENTRY

  • is illegal (or is legal)           

For example: Raymond came to the U.S. illegally when he was in high school, but now he’s a naturalized American citizen.

  • came here legally (or illegally)

For example: Christiana entered legally on a student visa, but she stayed on past the expiration date after she met her future husband.

So, to review:

  • People ENTER illegally (see “enter” is an action verb), but
  • People ARE undocumented.  (“be” is a non-action verb)

I hope this helps your future conversations.  Let us know if you have other questions, and we’ll try to answer them in future segments of What’s Up?

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.